In the heady world of tube amplification, no tube is held in higher regard than the ubiquitous 300B triode. The Line Magnetic Audio LM210IA integrated tube amplifier reviewed here basks within its glory. First manufactured in 1933, the 300B tube was used extensively in movie theatres as 'talkies' took over from the silent era of cinema. The military also used the 300B, probably for early 'walkie talkie' type field communications, however it was the audio industry that really took the legendary triode tube and established it as the tube of choice for hi-fi equipment. Today, we review the Line Magnetic Audio LM210IA as the 'rebirth' of tubes for high fidelity sound reproduction has seen the 300B rise from the ashes like an audio phoenix amidst a blitzkrieg of solid-state. Although the last Western Electric tube rolled off the production line in the 1980's a plethora of manufacturers have sprung up offering reproductions of the original WE design.
Manufacturers such as Allnic, Sophia Electric and Audion (to name but a few) have all produced 300B based SET amplifiers and even though the tube is used to produce moderate power (around 10 Wpc max), the parallel rise of high sensitivity loudspeakers in the audio marketplace has made low power SET amplification popular once again. So that's the backstory, my first experience of a 300B based amplifier resulted in more than a few smiles and as I type this, a quite likely case of back strain. Enter Line Magnetic Audio, hailing from China and bold as brass with its LM201IA Integrated Tube Amplifier.
Line Magnetic Audio LM210IA is not your typical Chinese audio manufacturer, this small company is based in Guangdong Province (close to Hong Kong) and is run by two brothers with a passion for Western electric theatre amplifiers. In fact that's how the business started, specializing in the repair and refurbishment of these grand old tube amps, eventually leading to the brothers designing amplifiers of their own under the Line Magnetic audio brand, predominately using Western Electric tubes. The company has also gone on to produce a wide range of amplification and digital equipment (DAC/CD player), and have also produced rare loudspeaker drivers such as the 555W, 597A, 755A, TA4181 and TA4151 and horns like the 22A, underlining their commitment to this sector of classic audio gear.
It's an intriguing direction for a company to head towards, and so my interest in Line Magnetic was piqued. A quick email to Jonathan Halpern of USA importer Tone Imports was followed by a quick reply: "After working with LM for a year or so, they sent an email about the new Silver Series components. LM had been and is still doing lots of OEM work for several Japanese brands and gained a lot of experience with series production. With my positive feelings towards LM, we decided to order a few for trial. They have exceeded our expectations in every way. Fit and finish, build quality and of course really excellent sonics. The Silver and now Gold Series, take some cues from the Western Electric knowledge and know how and combine it in a easy to use, well made package."
I had seen Line Magnetic Audio equipment locally but I hadn't actually heard the product - Neil Young and Paul Turner of Turned On Audio (in Auckland, New Zealand) stock the full range and while the other amplifiers in the line-up looked great, it was the hulking form of the LM210IA in the store that caught my attention the first time I clapped eyes on it. From an aesthetic point of view it hit the mark, its solid aluminum front plate and chunky control buttons/switches and a high quality ALPS volume pot contrasted nicely with the hammertone paint finish chassis. Sitting atop the chassis were a compliment of vacuum tubes including 300B output and 310B driver tubes along with a pair of 12AX7 input tubes, while 4 sets of RCA inputs, a set of pre-in/main out RCA's and a set of WBT-style speaker terminals (4, 8 and 16ohm taps) made up the rear panel. Biasing is a manual affair using a supplied screwdriver (biasing is performed via grub screws on the top panel), but the boffins at the shop had set this up for me perfectly so it wasn't required.
The guys had other LM gear on display, but this beast caught my attention and I really, really had to audition it – in the familiar surroundings of my listening room (aka my lounge). An 8 Wpc SET amplifier couldn't hope to compete with my 250 Wpc solid state mono's in terms of dynamics I thought to myself, but would almost certainly be sweeter in terms of tone and a much better match for my compliment of high-efficiency single driver loudspeakers – was I in for a surprise?
I love big. In my world (with a few exceptions) big is good, and big and heavy is even better – especially when it comes to audio equipment. Usually in the case of loudspeakers, heavy equates to thick, low resonance cabinetry and heavy driver magnets while with amplifiers, it means large output transformers and chunky baked-bean can sized capacitors. Well the LM210IA is both big and heavy, and the carton I helped pack it in to resembled a bar fridge in terms of size. At nearly 65 lbs., the Line Magnetic Audio LM210IA is some seriously heavy iron; and the double-boxed packaging added quite a bit of extra pounds. This makes the transportation of the unit quite a challenge! Luckily I was able to wrap them around the awkward carton and deliver it safely and then complete the task of unpacking it and lugging it on to my equipment rack. Once situated and cabled up it was time to turn the LM210IA on and start the first of my listening sessions.
With a reassuring 'thump' the big LM210IA stirred into life once turned on and not wanting to listen to it cold, I decided to leave it playing background music for a half hour or so while I got on with a few chores around the house. Once firmly seated in front of the system an aspect of the 210A struck me immediately – there was no loss of detail with this amplifier and compared with my solid-state gear, the dynamics hadn't taken a backward step either. Yes it's still a 'warm' sounding amplifier, but not one that presents the recording in a rose tinted fashion at the expense of overall detail and clarity. "God Is Love" from Marvin Gaye's soul masterpiece What's Going On sounded terrific via the 210IA, his smooth vocal was nicely centered while the tambourine in the left channel was more prominent and more realistic sounding than I had previously heard when using my solid state rig. Drums and bass were predictably muted due to the subtle engineering of the album, while the resultant soundstage did emerge from outside the speaker enclosures but not outrageously so.
The essence here was of listenability: I listened to the entire album only pausing to turn the 180 gram vinyl pressing over between sides, quite a rarity as the restless side of my psyche usually has me flitting from one album to another without hearing any of them in their entirety. I really enjoyed the reproduction of the percussion (among many other highlights) while listening to "Save The Children"; the hand-struck bongos had real timbre and body, while the massed backup choir provided the canvas for Marvin's voice to soar. "Who really cares, who's willing to try" - indeed! Beck's new album Morning Phase is pretty much a follow up to 2002's Seachange with its collection of acoustic inspired ballads and introspective pop tunes and while ultimately more uplifting, it shares the same time signatures and stripped down recording techniques. The Byrd's-inspired "Blackbird Chain" was a captivating listen, starting with his simple strummed guitar and downbeat vocal. The most impressive aspect of this album while listening to it via the 210IA was the preservation of space around the recording - especially during the chorus where the soundstage just opened up, creating an atmospheric hall of music in my listening room.
Digital sources were equally well rendered by the big Line Magnetic, listening to The Golden Age by the French artist Woodkid was excellent when partnered with my Antipodes Audio DS1/Audiolab 8200CDQ combo, his Phillip Glass inspired modern folk has quite epic scale and the big 210IA was well up to the challenge of reproducing his unique sound. "Conquest Of Spaces" begins with a baroque-styled synthesizer intro, and then follows up with an assault of percussion accompanied by an orchestral brass arrangement – the horn section was full bodied and realistic, while there was a genuine feeling of 'stick on skin' from the percussionists. Once again the soundstage opened up creating a palpable effect of sitting in a rather large hall. Impressed? You betcha.
The Line Magnetic 210IA is quite an achievement in terms of sound quality and aesthetics, certainly the brooding industrial appearance may not be everyone's cup of tea (or coffee) but it definitely resonated with me. It's built like a tank, but its looks are deceiving as it is capable of an extremely nimble and subtle sonic performance capturing nuances and tonalities that lesser amplifiers can only hint at. It also possesses true dynamics and attack, although common sense must be used when selecting loudspeakers to partner it – Wilson Audio Maxx owners should look elsewhere, I think. It is not the greatest integrated amplifier in the world (that probably hasn't been manufactured yet), but it certainly manages to hit more bullseye in terms of sonic performance than it misses. Partner this amplifier with a 93dB+/W/m high sensitivity speaker (such as the DeVore Orangutan for instance) and I guarantee you'll be in for a musical treat. It's a strong recommendation then from this reviewer for the Line Magnetic LM201IA, it was such a shame to have to box it back up and return it.